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Blue Bell to now inform states of positive listeria tests

HOUSTON (AP) — Blue Bell Creameries signed agreements with health officials in Texas and Oklahoma on Thursday requiring the company to inform the states whenever there is a positive test result for listeria in its products or ingredients.

The requirement comes after the Brenham, Texas-based company failed to tell federal or state health officials of repeated findings of listeria at its Oklahoma plant that date back to 2013.

“State and federal regulatory agencies play an important role in food safety, and we hope that it will be reassuring to our customers that we are working cooperatively with the states of Texas and Oklahoma in taking the necessary steps to bring Blue Bell Ice Cream back to the market,” the company’s president and CEO, Paul Kruse, said in a statement.

The agreements call for Blue Bell to report within 24 hours “any presumptive positive test result” for listeria found in ingredients or finished product samples from the company’s facilities in Brenham and Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Such reporting will be required for two years once ice cream products return to the market and could be extended.

Blue Bell said it is working on a similar agreement with Alabama, where it also has a plant.

All of the company’s plants have been shut down since Blue Bell issued a full recall in April after more of its products tested positive for listeria. The company’s ice cream has been linked to 10 listeria illnesses in four states, including three deaths in Kansas.

The agreements announced Thursday do not require Blue Bell to immediately notify Texas and Oklahoma of any presumptive positive test results for listeria that might have been found on floors or other surfaces that don’t have contact with food.

Food and Drug Administration investigation findings released last week showed the company had found 17 positive samples of listeria on surfaces and floors in its Oklahoma plant dating back to 2013. The FDA said it was never told of these repeated findings of listeria.

Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said her agency didn’t call for Blue Bell to notify it of a positive test result related to things like floors and other surface areas “because it wouldn’t necessarily mean there is a problem in the product. We put a priority on knowing what’s in the finished ice cream.”

“We’d absolutely want to have full access to those results so we can see where the positive occurred and whether it was found near food production areas,” she said.

Stan Stromberg, director of the food safety division for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, said his agency wasn’t as concerned about testing samples related to surfaces that don’t have contact with food.

“Once the plant starts running again, we will ask to see those results every time we are in the plant,” he said. “In the past … they weren’t required to provide them to us. Now they have to provide them to us.”

The FDA supports the agreements and “will be working with Blue Bell and our state and local partners to review corrective actions taken at the Blue Bell facilities,” said agency spokeswoman Lauren Sucher.

The agreements also require Blue Bell to notify Texas and Oklahoma at least two weeks before it plans to start producing ice cream for sale and to also conduct a trial product run.

Blue Bell also will implement a “test and hold” program for at least a year in which ice cream products must test negative for listeria before they are released for sale. The company will retain an independent sanitation or microbiology expert to ensure methods and procedures are in place to prevent contamination.

Blue Bell Creameries has said it will be at least several months before its products are back in stores.

Listeria illness generally only affects the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and their newborn infants. All three who died in the Blue Bell outbreak had already been hospitalized for other conditions.

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Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.

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